The New Orleans Pelicans thought they had at least until this summer to determine what to do with Anthony Davis. They had the option of offering the perennial All-Star a five-year, $239 million contract extension after the 2019-20 season when it appeared there was still a possibility of re-signing him.
Davis ended that possibility this past week when his agent, Rich Paul, announced Davis would not sign any extension with the Pelicans and preferred to be traded as soon as possible.
The timing was interesting because the trade deadline is Feb. 7, which handicaps the interested Celtics unless they decided to include Kyrie Irving in the deal. An NBA rule stipulates that two players on maximum rookie contract extensions — Irving and Davis — cannot be on the same roster through trades.
Since the Celtics traded for Irving, they are ineligible to acquire Davis until Irving opts out of his contract this summer.
So that leaves the Lakers as the primary option, and they have a few days to put together a package for Davis or things get tricky.
It’s hard to blame Davis for wanting out. He has played vigorously for seven seasons for the Pelicans and the organization hasn’t given him much support in return.
First, since Davis joined the Pelicans in 2012, the club has had just two first-round picks. It traded away its other first-rounders. They took Nerlens Noel on draft night in 2013 but traded him to Philadelphia in the Jrue Holiday deal. They didn’t have a first-rounder in 2014 or 2015 and took Buddy Hield in 2016 before moving him to Sacramento for DeMarcus Cousins, who played a year with New Orleans before leaving via free agency.
The Pelicans haven’t had a first-round pick in the past two drafts, meaning they haven’t been able to build a young core around Davis. Holiday is a solid player, but he’s not a superstar. Julius Randle was signed to help the front line, but the Pelicans still have one of the league’s worst defenses.
Davis has the right to determine his fate and whatever he decided to do wasn’t going to be easy. The small-market Pelicans have been mismanaged and that’s not Davis’s fault.
For years the Kings, Hornets, Magic, and Bulls have been mismanaged and the complaints by some owners that they can’t hold onto their star players are misplaced because of this fact. Great players generally don’t want to bolt winning teams.
We all want to see parity in the NBA, but the primary reason that the same teams are awful every season is because they are grossly mismanaged. The NBA in New Orleans is a tricky issue, like it is in other southeastern cities where football is king.
In Atlanta, Charlotte, and even Orlando, football is more important. New Orleans area fans care about the Saints and LSU football before the Pelicans and it shows in attendance. The NBA has handed New Orleans two All-Star Games in the past 11 years. It really wants the league to succeed there, but it doesn’t appear to be a destination city for any major players.
Many view New Orleans as a great place to party and eat, but not live. Atlanta was filled this past week with Super Bowl patrons who are thoroughly enjoying the nightlife, but the Hawks can’t get any major free agents. Same with Charlotte, which will host the All-Star Game in two weeks and entertain scores of NBA players, but not even the lure of playing for Michael Jordan can encourage a major free agent to consider Charlotte seriously.
Davis gave New Orleans as much time as he possibly could. He doesn’t want to be Kevin Garnett, who wasted 12 years in Minnesota waiting for the Timberwolves to be elite before agreeing to the 2007 trade to the Celtics.
And how many times have the Timberwolves reached the playoffs since Garnett left? Once, last season. And they have gone through at least three rebuilding projects in that span. It’s no wonder why some of these superstars drafted by smaller-market teams eventually leave.
When these players are drafted, the clock starts ticking. It’s happening in Phoenix, which has had a mass of lottery picks the past five years and doesn’t even have a 30-win season to show for it.
It’s happening in Charlotte, where the Hornets have wasted a batch of picks since taking Kemba Walker in 2011. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky, and Malik Monk have been their first-round picks, before they traded for Miles Bridges on draft night in 2018.
Vonleh was quickly traded. Kaminsky has been relegated to a bit player. Kidd-Gilchrist is a reserve. And Zeller is a starter but has failed to reach his potential. Monk and Bridges are potential cornerstones, but that could take a few years.
Meanwhile, Walker is a free agent this summer and has to decide whether to return to Charlotte. All-Star Weekend and how Charlotte hosts the NBA community could be crucial to how the city is perceived by free agents.
“This is wonderful for our organization,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “I think it just solidifies what we’re trying to do here and we are moving in the right direction. There’s good, positive movement here going in our organization.”
Borrego, a first-year coach, realizes how important it is for the Charlotte franchise to be perceived as a destination, even though it never has been. In the NFL, major free agents don’t mind playing in Green Bay or Charlotte or New Orleans or Tennessee, but it’s not the same in the NBA.
Smaller-market franchises have to build through the draft and trades, and if they fail, players such as Davis will bolt for a larger market and a better chance to win a championship.
“I’m trying not to focus on the sales pitch [for the organization], that the work will take care of itself,” Borrego said. “If we do the right things and build this thing the right way, it will attract the right people that we want. I think it’s ‘Field of Dreams,’ build it and they will come. I think they will come if they start to build it the right way and we want people around the league to take notice of that.
“I think Kemba’s a big part of that. It’s not a secret that he’s a free agent coming up, so our No. 1 recruiting pitch is to Kemba Walker right now. He understands that and he’s playing like it and I think he’s having the best year of his career. So, that’s our No. 1 target. Everybody’s aligned here and I think there’s a lot of positives that we’re seeing this season.”
Maybe Davis’s timing or method can be criticized, but he can’t be blamed for wanting out of New Orleans after years of futility.
Warriors hit it big with Cousins
The Warriors weren’t expecting DeMarcus Cousins back until about March, but he made his return Jan. 18 and is now trying to work himself back into premium basketball shape and blend with his teammates.
Cousins’s numbers aren’t eye-popping because they don’t have to be. He entered play on Friday averaging 13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4 assists in 22.3 minutes per game. He missed the past year after suffering an Achilles’ tear while with the Pelicans and received little free agent interest because of speculation he was damaged goods.
The Warriors signed Cousins for the $5.3 million midlevel, realizing that he would miss more than half the season. What Golden State has lacked during its title runs is a dominant center. The Warriors have played with Zaza Pachulia, Andrew Bogut, Kevin Looney, and Damian Jones. All the aforementioned were solid big men but don’t compare Cousins.
For a player who in the past had been criticized for his lack of conditioning and passion, Cousins’s recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. And as the Celtics saw in Golden State’s victory on Jan. 26, Cousins was not only an effective scorer in the post but a solid pick-and-roll defender.
“I put a lot of work in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a surprise and as far as integrating with the team, I feel like it’s a team full of high IQs and you put a team of high IQs together, it’s kind of easier to get on the same page and play the right way. I just think it’s a good fit, a good situation, and everybody’s kind of working out. It’s working out smoother and easier than a lot of people expected.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he has been beyond pleased with Cousins since the center’s return. The Warriors have 2½ months to get Cousins playoff-ready, but he’s already making contributions with his limited playing time.
“I think DeMarcus was holding back in our scrimmages the last couple of months,” Kerr joked. “I was worried about him. He’s got a different level that he’s gotten to. For an Achilles’, especially for a big guy like DeMarcus, we’ve always known how skilled he is. What’s impressive to me is his lateral quickness, you’ve got to guard Kyrie Irving on pick-and-rolls as a big guy, that’s brutally difficult, and I think he more than held his own.”
And Cousins already has had his first scrape with teammate Draymond Green as the two had a heated discussion during a timeout in the loss to the 76ers on Thursday. The two then slapped hands after the disagreement, but Cousins overall has meshed well with his teammates.
They realize he’s an All-Star center that gives them an element they have never had in their five-year run. He realizes the quartet of Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Green, and Stephen Curry make his job easier. Gone are the years where he had to carry the entire load for Sacramento just to keep the Kings competitive.
For all of his hard work with the Kings and Pelicans, Cousins has never made a playoff appearance. This year will be his first.
“It’s cool to share the responsibility,” he said. “It’s hard to come out and be the guy to score 30 every night to even be in the game. It’s a good feeling coming in to know you’ve got a great chance of winning the game. Definitely a different feeling, a different look, something I’m not used to. But it’s been a lot of fun.”
After a recent practice at Harvard, Cousins and Durant played a little one-on-one in their street clothes. The interaction between the two was just as interesting as the game.
“The biggest thing is the mind-set of coming in and playing the right way,” Cousins said of joining the Warriors. “I’m not really out there to go out and show off and play for individual accolades. I’m just going out there to make the right plays, play team basketball, winning basketball, I feel like the success will come to you regardless.”
What changed some in Cousins’s absence is the emphasis on small ball. There aren’t a lot of teams with players who can legitimately defend Cousins. Last week in Washington, the Wizards used 6-foot-9-inch Sam Dekker on Cousins. Cousins simply shook his head.
Cousins entered the league as a traditional center. But he has improved his shooting range. In his first five NBA seasons, Cousins attempted 69 3-pointers. He attempted 294 in 48 games with the Pelicans last season before getting hurt. It’s that ability to shoot from the perimeter that makes him an even tougher defensive matchup in the Warriors’ system because with four other players stretching the floor, Cousins will get a load of open 3-pointers.
“[Dekker guarding me] was kind of foolish,” Cousins said. “[The small ball] is basically a style that this team has created. It’s always been a trendy league. I can remember the days where it was Tim Duncan and David Robinson and everybody wanted two dominant bigs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. I can remember the Big Three days with the Miami Heat and everybody wanted to get three superstars.
“It’s a trendy league, of course, and whatever style wins a lot of people try to copy it and match it. This is the style right now and I’m pretty sure down the line there will be a new trend.”
The Cousins effect has been apparent and he has impressed Kerr with his desire to get back to form.
“The guy’s a gamer. He loves to play. He loves to compete,” Kerr said. “Now that he’s out there you can see he is making strides. His ability to run the floor, it’s all been impressive.”
The Mavericks paid a hefty price to acquire Kristaps Porzingis, taking on the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. Lee, who needed a change of scenery after signing a four-year, $48 million deal in 2016, has another year left on that deal at $12.7 million. Hardaway has another season left of a four-year, $70 million deal he signed in 2016 with the Knicks. It’s two more examples of how much of a disaster the summer of 2016 was for free agency after the bump in the salary cap because the new television contract. The Mavericks gave the Knicks the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews so they can create even more cap space this summer. Hardaway and Lee will become rotation players for the Mavericks, who had faint playoff hopes this season but will be primed for a 2019-20 run . . . Team president Steve Mills said Jordan and Matthews will serve as mentors for this Knicks team, but it’s difficult to believe they won’t be pushing for buyouts so they can join playoff contenders. Jordan signed a one-year, $22.9 million deal with the Mavericks in the offseason, but his play had been inconsistent and he was viewed as expendable when it was apparent the Mavericks weren’t going to make the playoffs. Matthews hasn’t been the same player since tearing his Achilles’ two years ago and had done little with the Mavericks besides score. But he would serve as a solid scorer off the bench and a capable 3-point shooter for a contending team . . . After seeking one last return to the NBA, former Celtic Kendrick Perkins has signed on to join the Big3 league. Perkins, 34, played for the Cavaliers last season and wanted to play one more NBA season and even had talks with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. But there were no takers. The Big3 is expanding from eight teams to 12 and will play two days per week in 18 cities throughout the season . . . The Bucks will retire Marques Johnson’s No. 8 in a March ceremony, celebrating one of their greatest players. Johnson is also one of the greatest players ever to come out of Los Angeles and the first Wooden Award winner in 1977 . . . After sitting the first two months of the season, Charlotte’s Bismack Biyombo has become part of the Hornets’ rotation and has actually played decently as the starting center. Biyombo, another beneficiary of the free agent summer of 2016, is in the third year of a four-year, $68 million deal he signed with the Magic after a strong playoff run with the Raptors. Biyombo has a player option for next season.